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Selective Storytelling

“Hey, how was your weekend?”

It’s a question we hear all the time, one which we don’t put much thought into. After all, we spend a good portion of our lives telling stories. Storytelling, however, is a social tool we use to exchange information, and like any skill, it needs to be taught to us if we want to be able to use it effectively. What often goes unexplored, however, is that how we narrate our stories depends upon who is asking us about our weekend in the first place and why. And telling the stories of history is no different.

From a very young age, American schoolchildren are taught the importance of narrative form—that is, that every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. If you’ve been through the public school system, it’s very likely that, sometime in grade school, you came across a worksheet that looks like this:

worksheet with steps for baking cookies to be put in chronological order

You were likely told to put the pictures in number order, from 1-5, in such a way that the pictures and text made up a coherent story; that is, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. We learn to use this format to structure all the stories we tell. When, for example, someone asks you what you did over the weekend, you probably say something like, “Well first, on Friday night I decided to stay in and watch a movie. Next, on Saturday…Then, on Sunday morning…” If our entire lives are simply one long story about our past, it stands to reason that history functions in more or less exactly the same way: chronologically, linearly, and with a clear sense of how events begin, progress, and end.

Or does it?

What is often left out of our conversations about storytelling is the role of the author/narrator in constructing certain events to look a certain way, depending on their respective intended goals. When you tell a story about your weekend, depending on the intended audience, the details you choose to include in your narrative change. For example, I may tell my friend about how many drinks I had at the bar on Saturday night or how I was binge-watching the Office on Netflix on Sunday instead of doing my homework, but I likely wouldn’t tell the same tale to my professor on Monday morning.

So why does my social location as the narrator of this weekend tale matter? Because, depending on whom I’m talking to, I’m actually telling two very different stories about my weekend. It’s not so much that one particular version of events has more inherent truth-value than the other, but simply that certain details become more or less important to my message in different contexts.

This selection of details, often referred to as “selective privileging,” does not simply occur when we narrate our own stories for others or, say, write a novel, but when any story about any group is told. And if history can be seen as a collection of stories about the past (perhaps prompting us to consider talking about histories, in the plural), we can rightly deduce that telling any history is not as simple as placing self-evident events, such as the events drawn in the pictures above, into chronological order and slapping a bow-tie on top. Rather, stories about the past are told by parties with particular interests and goals to listeners with equally particular interests and goals. We can imagine, therefore, how certain details are selectively privileged depending on the context in which the story is told.

If we consider the story drawn out for us in the image above, for example, we may ask ourselves why the author and/or artist decided to only include certain information regarding the process of baking. We don’t get to see, for example, the baker shopping for ingredients. We don’t get to see where those ingredients came from, either, or how much they cost. Indeed, we are never even explicitly given the reason why the cookies are being made.

Of course, for this example, we could say that the story is missing many elements for the very purpose of remaining simple. It’s a worksheet intended for young children, after all. But what do we do when the example is not so simple, e.g., when a history is being offered in which a group’s values are at stake? In such a case, asking ourselves what information gets to be included in the story and why can be even more revealing than the story itself.

Worksheet image credit: TurtleDiary

This post originally appeared at Religious Studies and Social Theory: Foundations.

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